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How I Got The Shot: Noir Blur

How I Got The Shot: Noir Blur

When I look for inspiration for my images, I often try to look back in time instead of at my contemporaries. What’s trending now may passé at the moment, but what has been successful for decades, will continue to produce stunning images. This is one reason so many photographers are influenced by “the greats”… Avedon, Penn, Watson (to name a few).

For this shoot I drew inspiration from Lillian Bassman, a fashion photographer in the 1950’s and 60’s who created images that make my jaw drop. Her work is painterly, exploring a strong but feminine contrast between light and dark. Her images are graphic, grainy, and even abstract. When I first discovered her work, I could not imagine how I had studied fashion photography and missed the images of this incredible artist. She was not concerned with focus and ‘correct exposure’… she thought like a painter, using black and white to create bold compositions and blurred frames to create brushstrokes. I cannot express how much I love her work — and her book “Women” is always out in my studio.

Side note: At one point in her career (late 60s/early 70s) she threw out most of her life’s work and negatives — destroyed them or threw them in the trash. Apparently, she was disillusioned with the industry including the new direction of fashion design and the concept of the ‘super model’. Just hearing that she discarded her masterpieces is absolutely heart-wrenching.

Recently I’ve found that my work continues to be influenced by Lillian’s imagery. We share the same love of clean, bold and graphic compositions, I keep finding her influences whispering in my ear as I create. I would never be so bold as to compare myself to her brilliance, but I am always amazed when I go into a creative shoot and on the other side I can see influences of the artists I so admired fused with my own style.

Concept & Styling

For this shoot, I began only with the idea that I wanted the model to be in a see-through lace dress photographed in a dramatic style. I asked my friend and designer Lory Sun to create this dress, and I am lucky enough that she designed a custom piece just for me.

While I didn’t go in with a clear vision, I had recently been admiring Lillian’s work and was feeling the urge to create high contrast black and white images.

This shoot was part of a test day, the purpose was to experiment, try new techniques, and simply create beautiful images. I LOVE test shoots and personally aim to shoot two dedicated days a month for creating with no restrictions.

Lighting and Technique

Just before this particular look, I had photographed model Jillian Jaymes (what a stunning woman!) in a beautiful beaded and lace headpiece.

The shot looked very film noir, so I began with this same light and scene. When I brought her back on the set in the lace dress I shot a few images in the exact same light, simply pumping up the power on the beauty dish in order to add a bit illumination to the shadows.

I had used a Profoto Spot Small projected onto her face and torso to give me a crisp separation between light and shadow. Next, I added the beauty dish with a grid to control shadow detail. Finally, I added my third (and final) light to the background with a 20 degree grid to provide separation.

Model on photography set in lace dress - Lindsay Adler Photography

While I loved the mood, I wanted something a bit more painterly and mysterious. Her makeup, expression, clothing, and light all created a sexy film noir style lighting. I wanted to take this dark femme fatale look and add one more level of creativity.

For this reason, I decided to drag my shutter. In other words, I used a long shutter speed in order to allow the modeling light of my strobe to also register in my image. During the long exposure, I also moved my camera. At times I zoomed, at times I moved the camera side to side. The result? Subtle, but ghostly blur that added more depth and mystery to the scene. For this shoot I shot ¼ sec exposure, giving me plenty of time to move my camera. I selected zoom lenses (Canon 70-200 2.8 and Canon 24-105mm 4.0) to give me the capability to zoom during my exposure and try different blur techniques.

Studio Lighting Diagram

The entire shoot I was tethered into Lightroom CC using my Tether Tools cable so I could see exactly how the light was translating. I shot with an import preset of high contrast black and white (which I created) so that I could see the mood of the lighting. If I had shot color, the white balance would have been VERY off because all of my modeling lights are tungsten white balance while the strobes are daylight balanced.

Lindsay Adler shooting with Tether Tools cable

I directed my model to create beautiful curves while exuding both strong and alluring expressions. The lighting, the styling, the posing and the post-processing all work together for a cohesive mood and concept.

Creative Team

James Milligan applying makeup to model

Hair and Makeup: James Milligan
Model: Jillian Jaymes at Women 360 Management
Stylist, Designer: Lory Sun 

Camera settings:
ISO 200
Shutter speed: ¼ sec
Aperture: F/11

Retouching & Final Images

Retouching on these images was quite minor. Primarily the I applied a black and white conversion in Lightroom, and then used localized adjustments to selectively lighten and darken certain areas of the frame to control the eye and reveal detail to create a vintage “noir blur” look.